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Newport Beach Won’t Join State Move Allowing Less Transparent Government

Aiming to save money, lawmakers halted Brown Act rules on meeting notices, closed-session reports.

July 27 update: See clarification regarding school districts in the fourth paragraph below.

Newport Beach officials say they won’t change longstanding policies of public transparency in the wake of softened Brown Act rules.

In June, California cities and counties were given the option of becoming more secretive.

The state Legislature suspended Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows those agencies to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.

(Clarification: It’s been widely reported, both at Patch and other mainstream media outlets, that school boards and governing bodies for community college districts were also affected by the suspension, but that isn't the case. “Obligations under the Brown Act remain fully in effect for school districts and colleges,” according to School Services of California, a consultant hired by school districts throughout the state. “Open meeting and ‘sunshine’ requirements come not only from the Brown Act but also from the education code, the California constitution, board policy and other sources.”)

The number of California municipalities choosing to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown.

But Newport Beach plans to continue its practice of posting agendas ahead of meetings and announcing the results of closed sessions.

"There will be no change to the way that we post agendas and handle public notices," city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan said.

"One person doesn't set policy in our city, but I have no interest in changing what we do now," Mayor Nancy Gardner added.

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the suspension.

Citizens have no legal recourse, if some officials “see it in their best interest to cut a corner here or there,” Ewert was quoted as saying last week.

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue soon, but the group’s communications director Eva Spiegel said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo.”

“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” she said. “We have always encouraged transparency.”

How the state came to the decision of suspending the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money.

In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.

So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend the mandates.

But according to public-agency watchdog Californians Aware, local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.

They “could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986—but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations,” the nonprofit reported Friday.

In fact, according to Terry Francke of Californians Aware,  the city of Vista claimed $20,174 reimbursement from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06.

“The city claimed the flat rate for 90 shorter agendas,” Francke said of Vista. “The city claimed 30 minutes of staff time (at a $46.17 hourly rate) to prepare each item on the other agendas. For example, the city council’s Dec. 13, 2005, hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”

The San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history of the Brown Act:

The Brown Act, named for the Modesto assemblyman who authored it, requires that at least 72 hours before a public meeting, local legislative bodies must post an agenda "containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed ... in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency's Internet Web site." The act also stipulates that all decisions made in closed session must be announced publicly.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.

“To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget,” said Francke, the California media law expert and general counsel for what it known as CalAware. “The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say ‘Enough.’ ”

In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed, Francke said.

Ken Stone of Patch.com contributed to this report.

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